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Catastrophic Consequences: WPXI Investigates the Stability of Norfolk Southern’s Rail Bridges
On November 9th, WPXI aired an extra-long news special after Investigative Reporter Rick Earle reviewed the following:
multiple National Safety Transportation Board Norfolk Southern Derailment Reports finding that Norfolk Southern used old worn rails and wheels, and either was not inspecting properly, or was disregarding the results of those inspections;
volumes of images of Norfolk Southern’s bridges that were so severely corroded that they were missing bolts and had totally unconnected cross ties.
The news report includes interviews with Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh, and follow up interviews with the author of the 2015 Report that names the Ft. Wayne Bridge as a “Deadly Crossing” because of severe corrosion, and then Norfolk Southern’s Manager of Media Relations.  Norfolk Southern’s Media spokesperson says all of its bridges are safe and all of the corrosion is “cosmetic.”
However, in its own public outreach video (which Norfolk Southern has since removed from their website) concerning the need to entirely replace—at taxpayer expense, its Merchant St. rail bridge, they said the following:
“After a routine inspection in 2018, the Merchant Street Bridge was determined to exhibit extensive steel corrosion within the cross girders and columns comprising the intermediate pier as well as throughout the riveted trough system...and potentially could cause injuries or property damage.... These conditions are considered safety concerns and may pose a safety hazard to the railroad and the traveling public...and a potential liability to other transportation entities (e.g. City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County) if not addressed.”
There were no indications that metal fatigue or any other failure modes were contributing problems causing the steel to deteriorate...just corrosion.
You just can’t have it both ways, Norfolk Southern.  What is clearly evident is that the corrosion on other rail bridges in our county look to be more severe than the deterioration on its Merchant Street Bridge. 
The many decades long corrosion evident on Norfolk Southern’s bridges is the result of a lack of maintenance- specifically the failure to remove rust and paint the steel—not age.  (Compare the Ft. Wayne Bridge with the Sixteenth Street/McCullough Bridge of the same age which is maintained by the city.)
WPXI also published the response of Association of American Railroads — which was that there is no cause for concern because inspections are submitted to the Federal Rail Administration.  However, the NSTB accident report of the 2006 Beaver River Bridge 83-car derailment at New Brighton determined:
“Contributing to the accident were the Federal Railroad Administration’s inadequate oversight of the internal rail inspection process and its insufficient requirements for internal rail inspection.”
What we were also not told is that the FRA is comprised of railroad and petroleum executives and lobbyists- and only has a budget to review and inspect 5% of the nation’s rail bridges.
This issue has nothing to do with double stack trains.  It has to do with projected increased train volume comprised of longer trains with extra locomotives.
Without regard to whether a bridge passes a current inspection, our city, county, state and federal representatives need to take a longer-term view of the safety of rail crossings.  The multitude of century-old rail bridges in Allegheny County will, in the near future, fall into the Merchant St. bridge category.  This fate is ever more likely now given Norfolk Southern’s record terminations of maintenance and inspector personnel in 2019 (one of their most profitable years) and 2020.  Those reductions in force, combined with the $13.7 Billion stock buyback over the last 10 years (instead of using those funds for enhanced maintenance, new equipment and rails, and additional inspections), make having special inspection oversight prudent and necessary.
Finally, WPXI reported that a number of City Council representatives were planning to request special inspection oversight from the PUC and the FRA - who have joint jurisdiction over rail bridge safety.
Please encourage your representatives to do the same.  You can find them here:
If Norfolk Southern is so confident that its rail bridges are safe, they should welcome special inspection oversight— just as they should have welcomed RP3 and other neighborhood groups’ participation in PUC safety proceedings.  Instead, Norfolk Southern has paid their lawyers to oppose our intervention in PUC and court hearings for over two years.  In order to obtain taxpayer funding, Norfolk Southern PR spokespeople promised that the process would be “open and transparent.”
Here is the WPXI link to the investigative report:
The foregoing constitutes RP3’s sincere opinions and beliefs.


Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh
Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh
Copyright © 2020 Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RP3), All rights reserved.

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